Sunday, 30 December 2012

Sci-fi/fantasy movies and tv shows - A few rare or half-forgotten gems.


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Yes I know. Some of you reading this blog (and big hugs and  a thank you to you if you are) may consider some of these entries as 'not bloomin forgotten at all', or possibly that some of them should actually fall into the 'should have bloomin stayed forgotten' category - particularly one or two of the TV shows. The fact is that from a purely personal standpoint, some of them have been forgotten at some point and then for some reason 'thrust themselves' as it were, back to the forefront of my tiny little mind. For instance, I was driving along the other day through the storms that we've been experiencing in the North of Scotland recently, when for no reason I started thinking abut a sci-fi show that I used to watch back in the 1970's. It isn't a show that is regarded as one of the pantheons of science fiction television, nor is it one that I would personally rank above others. It was a simply a programme that had a particular resonance, providing one of the many entertainment backdrops of my life. That in turn made me mull over some of the other shows or movies that at one time have held a special place for me.


Whenever 'best of' sci-fi shows are listed, they invariably include examples such as Star Trek, X Files, The Twilight Zone, Outer limits etc etc etc. All notable shows of course. Whether it is because of budget restrictions, creaking plots/acting or simply that it was the wrong time and the wrong place, there are sic-fi shows that seem fall into the limbo of remembrance.

So, this is not a 'best of' list. It's purely a subjective collection ( in no particular order) of six or seven shows that for one reason or another hold a special place in my Science fiction and fantasy heart. Its also my little attempt in helping to keep alive the memory of series that should not be forgotten, whether people like it or not!







1) The Quiet Earth, 1985. (Movie)






This obscure and completely underrated New Zealand film is another example of a late night discovery of mine on terrestrial television back in the day when British TV consisted of a grand total of 4 channels. It's gentle paced movie that comes with a plot concept of outlandish cleverness asking the question; What would happen if you were the last person on Earth? And if you were the last person, just what would you do?

Our protagonist, Zac Hobson is a scientist who has been working on a secret and as yet untested global energy grid project. He wakes up one day after an attempted suicide to discover that not only has there been a malfunction with the secret project, but also all human life seems to have disappeared.

I think that at least one time in our lives, we've all fantasized about what we would do in a city where we were the sole inhabitants of a city. What would we do? How much fun could we have? Zac too faces this prospect for real as he alternates between feelings of horror and delight as he runs amok through the deserted city. He literally does whatever he wants, completely indulging himself with anything that catches his fancy from the empty shops stores and buildings, after a period of time taking ownership of mansion and believing himself to be almost divine in nature. Clearly, the isolation is further inducing the onset of insanity.  

Eventually his isolation is ended, partly by his discovery of other survivors, and also due to his increasing guilt as he questions his particular role in the destruction of all life on the planet. Are the fellow survivors real or are they just a figment of his fevered ever increasing imagination? The movie rather cleverly never fully makes this clear, so I'll leave that up to you to decide if you get the chance to see the film. And indeed you must, do not deny yourself!

I won't give away the ending as Zac and his friends stage a daring plan to re-dress the earth's balance. All I will say is that 'jaw dropping' might be one apt description.




The trailer for 'The Quiet Earth' - beware, there be spoilers within!










2) Gemini Man, 1976. (TV Series)






This short lived series featured Ben Murphy as secret agent Sam Casey,  a man who was injured in a diving accident which rendered him invisible (no, really, it did). The secret agency is named INTERSECT and luckily for our hero have found a way to regulate his invisibility by the use of a wrist watch, which is called a "DNA stabiliser". Phew, thank goodness for that! 

When Sam presses a button on the watch it makes him invisible, which funnily enough is rather a nifty trick to have when you're a secret agent. However (there's always a however in a sic-fi series) he can only manage this for 15 minutes per day or else he will become permanently invisible. Cue in each episode Sam going down to the last few seconds available on his watch before saving the day, of course.

Yes, I know it's hokum, cliched and predictable. But it is pure unadulterated enjoyable hokum from an era in Television which wasn't particularly inventive or risk-taking in pursuing fresh ideas in science fiction.

It was also an era when shows didn't immediately garner a following then they were ditched, often midway through first season production. This too was one of many shows cancelled in the 1970's, well before it began to reach it's potential - another prime example of this cut-throat approach to TV making is shown in the last of this very list. A pilot of the series aired on May 10, 1976, and the series began airing on September 23 of that year. As a matter of fact, we in the UK were a little luckier than our American friends because only 11 episodes were ever produced, only five of them were broadcast in the USA before the show was cancelled,  although the entire series was seen on this side of the Pond. 

And yet, this 11 episode series still holds a special place in the hearts of some of us die-hard sci-fi fans.







3) Quatermass, 1979 (TV serial)




No, this is not the classic 1953 serial or the couple of it's excellent sequels and subsequent movie adaptations that regularly feature in fond recollections of classic British science fiction. My choice for this list is the fourth and final television outing for the brilliantly crafted British scientist Bernard Quatermass, reaching British TV screens more than 20 years after the character's last appearance in Quatermass and the Pit. 


In this marvellous four-part series, Britain has crumbled and disintegrated into a mess of the  hippie-esque ‘Planet People’ cult, older deprived bunker-dwellers, and an over-zealous and notorious privatised police force that in some ways parallels the time it was made. In short, it is a country which has descended into virtual anarchy.


In this latest version, Professor Quatermass (played by the ever excellent John Mills) has ceased to be the strong-willed man of action that was seen in the earlier incarnations. Instead, he is now burdened by weariness and confusion, a man of out time in a society that he can barely relate to let alone understand. Quatermass is searching for his missing granddaughter who has joined  the Planet People cult  who believe that society is on a path to extinction and the only hope for humanity's salvation is from alien life. However, we know that they in in fact the victims of an extraterrestrial force which causes them to gather in vast numbers across the planet, before being harvested. Quatermass comes to the inevitable conclusion that there is only one, shattering solution to the theta to the planet. 

Again, this is a production that hasn't acquired the the level of appreciation in part to the success and love for its predecessors. However, it should be judged its more on it's merits as an immense piece of British science fiction. The adaptation is brutally uncompromising in it's depiction of anarchy and desperation that a society could find itself in. Believe me, speaking as a connoisseur of horror, there are some genuinely disturbing moments contained within each episode.

In addition, John Mills is his usual excellent self in the part of the genius professor trying to save what's left of humanity. His performance at the time was much criticised by Quatermass purists and some other critics who felt that the character had lost too much of the qualities that he originally had. Hence, in truth missing the point quite spectacularly of where the character was now in this stage of his life.  For me, this production is perhaps the most spellbinding and disturbing of all the exploits of Professor Quatermass adventures.









4) Alphaville , 1965 (Movie)


Jean-Luc Goddard's futuristic masterpiece features a haggard FBI agent called Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) who is sent to an ultramodern city run by a master computer, where his mission is to locate and rescue an agent who is trapped there and also to  assassinate Professor von Braun, the architect of a state whose people are ruled by logic and science and have been purged of emotion with the aid of an almost-human computer called Alpha 60 that regulates all life in the city.. While on his mission, Lemmy meets and falls in love with Natacha (Anna Karina), the daughter of the scientist who designed Alpha 60. Their love becomes the most significant challenge to the computer's dominance.

Often referred to as a science fiction film without any special effects, Alphaville is quite rightly regarded in some quarters as a sublime piece of film making, in part satirising both film noir and Sci-fi without ever succumbing to blatant parody or insult. Not forgetting that it is also a wildly romantic allegory depicting a computer-controlled Orwellian society which has no room for with artists, philosophers, and lovers. 

On watching this movie for the first time some years ago my first reaction was to be both astonished and delighted in the most delicious of measures. All the elements of the film fuse together beautifully. Raoul Coutard's cunning black-and-white photography turns everyday objects and settings – a hotel lobby, a swimming pool, a room full of  computers, a jukebox, an old camera, the neon-lit Paris suburbs at night, into the contents of a genuinely authentic dystopian future. While the lovely soundtrack score from Paul Misraki brings moments of genuine tension and emotion.

The movie isn't easy to watch, indeed some call it baffling and incoherent in parts. Maybe that's the way great art should be.









5) 2046,  (movie, 2004)





This stunning film is a loose sequel to Wong-Kar Wai's 2000 ' In The Mood For Love'. Though anyone who hasn't seen the first film can easily watch 2046 as it works perfectly on it's own as a stand alone piece of work. Wong brings by equal measures a peculiar and breathtaking story which at face value seems to be about a man and the women he has loved, and lost. The story begins in the mid-'60s, recovering emotionally from a relationship with a married woman, journalist Chow plunges himself into a procession of romances that have no hope of success. He slowly becomes obsessed with the number of the room where he and the woman had their assignations motivates him to write 2046, a science fiction story about a place where people go to forget. The present-day sections are interwoven with the main character’s visions of a future in which robots interact alongside people and an enormous train system connects the world. 

2046
 is a near-masterpiece; a beautiful movie about the extent of regret, lost opportunities, and heartfelt torment. The director Wong-Kar Wai succeeds in producing a heady mix of existential drama, romantic suffering and science fiction fantasy. Yes it has a slow pace which wouldn't necessarily fit well with some modern day audiences. However, the slow pace and emphasis on tone only helps you to lose yourself in the stories and let them simply wash over your conscious like a warm summer breeze. 

The deeply textured atmospheric qualities accompanied by a  beautiful and melancholic music score increase the emotional connection emotions to a level that stays with you long after you experience it first hand. 2046 should be regarded as one of the most original and thought-provoking movies ever made. - if only more people would see it.









6) Planet of the Apes, 1974 (TV Series)





My introduction to the Planet of the Apes universe wasn't via the classic Charlton Heston movie, or or indeed any of it's sequels in that progressively dire Movie franchise. No, it was through the short lived spin-off television series from 1974 that first became my introduction the post-apocalyptic world.

Set around a dozen years after the first movie takes place a second spaceship crashes on planet Earth, a planet where human civilisation has been virtually destroyed, and a dominant race of apes has supplanted them as the authority in the world. Unlike the early films, the humans in this version of the Ape planet can talk, read, and live side by side in communities with the apes, although always to assorting degrees under ape control.. The two survivors of the crash are quickly captured by authorities but catch the interest of a sympathetic young chimpanzee scientist, Galen, played by the excellent Roddy McDowell who was essentially re-creating his role from the movie franchise. With Galen's help the astronauts manage to escape and now roam the Planet trying to find a way back to their own time. All the while being hunted by the military commander General Urko, perhaps the most compelling character in the series, who seeks to suppress all technology and make sure the apes maintain their supremacy...

Planet of the Apes: The Television Series lasted only 14 episodes and was cancelled due to low ratings so abruptly it lacks any resolution, the final episode showing the characters adrift on a raft in the sea after once again evading the chasing Apes. Nevertheless it is a much loved series, perhaps even more so on this side of the Atlantic where there were brief attempts to have the show produced financially from this side of the pond whilst keeping the filming in America.













Friday, 14 December 2012

The Dark Tower series

       The Dark Tower      

                                 I.
My first thought was, he lied in every word, That hoary cripple, with malicious eye 
 to watch the working of his lie
On mine, and mouth scarce able to afford
Suppression of the glee that pursed and scored
Its edge, at one more victim gained thereby.

II.
What else should he be set for, with his staff?
What, save to waylay with his lies, ensnare
All travellers who might find him posted there,
And ask the road? I guessed what skull-like laugh
Would break, what crutch 'gin write my epitaph
For pastime in the dusty thoroughfare,

III.
If at his counsel I should turn aside
Into that ominous tract which, all agree,
Hides the Dark Tower. Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.



…….. So say the opening three verses of Robert Browning's poem 'Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came'. It features the medieval knight, Childe Roland who is in search of the mythical  Dark Tower which many before him have looked for but perished in the process. The poem was the the main inspiration for the Dark Tower series of books by Stephen King which totals so far a grand amount of eight novels  totalling well over 4,000 pages which assimilates themes from a plethora of genres, including fantasy, science fiction, western and horror. It tells the story a "gunslinger" and his obsession on reaching a tower, the nature of which is both tangible, allegorical and said to be the nexus of all universes.Throughout the story King uses parallels to our own mythology in his creation.




Roland Deschain is the last living member of a knightly order known as 'gunslingers' and the sole surviving member of the line of Arthur Eld ( the equivalent of our King Arthur and the round table myth). It is a world that parallels our own, some things are the same, some things are similar and somethings are very different. Even the most powerful of countries have been decimated by war, with entire cities and areas vanishing , never to be seen again. In this new world time does not flow in a straightforward manner. Occasionally, even the sun rises and sets in the 'wrong' part of the sky. 

This Mid-world society is arranged in a medieval feudalistic fashion, while at the same time sharing technological and community attributes with the American old West, but it is also magical in nature. However, many of the magical qualities have disappeared from Mid-World, but some sources of an old power remain as do ancient objects and machinery from a long gone technologically advanced culture. Mid-world is said to have "moved on", and it appears to be falling apart at the seams.  As the series opens, Roland's motives, aims and even his age are unclear, though as the books continue, we slowly learn more about these mysteries. 



A couple of interesting asides……(well to me anyway)


Language

Stephen King created a language called  'High speech' for his characters in the Dark Tower story. It is an ancient language spoken by gunslingers and those who remember the time before the world 'moved on'. It is instinctively comprehended by the members of Roland's acquired group, it is suggested that this knowledge is telepathic in nature. 
Examples of this language includes a phrase such as Thankee, Sai ("Thank you, Sir/Ma'am."). In addition King uses the term Ka which is the approximate equivalent of destiny, or fate, in the fictional language High Speech (and similarly, Ka-tet, a group of people bound together by fate/destiny). This term originated in Egyptian mythology and storytelling and has featured in several other King novels, short stories and screenplays over the years.

 The opposite to High speech is the Low Speech, which has a degree of similarity to a polluted form of English. The majority of language and everyday interactions in In-World are in the Low Speech.


Cross over to other Stephen King works


I make absolutely no excuses for my love of Stephen King's work, especially this series of books. In my humble opinion he is often unfairly looked down upon by certain snooty members of the literary brigade, who seem to correlate being popular to being a low quality writer. 
The Dark Tower series -- which stretches through numerous lengthy novels is alluringly complex and peculiar, crossing between different worlds and times. Yes it can be frustrating in its tortured complexity and with Kings habit of catching you off guard when 'letting go' of characters that you have become increasingly attached to. Roland's character arc in particular is beautifully written and designed. We don't always feel comfortable with some of the things we grow to learn about him, but we always have a level of sympathy for his actions.
Another interesting feature is Kings habit of interlinking various characters and sub-plots with some of his other works. For example, Father Callahan, who appeared in 'Salems Lot' crops in this series as tortured as ever….. God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the tenacity to change what I may, and the good luck not to fuck up too often.



Warning! - There be spoilers ahead…….




The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982)



The first book in the series introduces us to Roland Deschain of Gilead, the only surviving gunslinger of a long-dead dynasty in a dying land. The knight wanders through this wasted world, seemingly chasing a mysterious  "man in black" who can help him locate the Dark Tower. Along his journey he finds Jake, a young boy who died in a car accident in our own world. As his quest continues Roland may be prepared to sacrifice what he holds dear so that his obsession can continue.


“Would’ee speak a word of prayer first, Roland? To whatever God thee holds?”

“I hold to no God,” Roland said. “I hold to the Tower and won’t pray to that.”




The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three (1987)



"The Drawing of the Three" begins on the same after the first book ends. Sickness has overcome Roland, and being pursued by man-eating monsters - 'lobstrosities'. In desperation  he succeeds in transferring his consciousness into our world -- and into the minds of drug addict and smuggler Eddie Dean, and legless civil rights activist Odetta Holmes (and her evil other personality, Detta). Roland succeeds into bringing Eddie and Odetta into Mid- world. immediately putting at risk the quest for the Dark Tower by Eddie's abolition and Detta's hatred.





The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands (1991)



The book begins with Roland mentoring Odetta/Detta - who is now known as Susannah,  and Eddie in the ways of gunslingers. Eddie and Susannah are now married, and the couple are quickly becoming more skillful and knowledgeable in their new roles in the group (or Ka-tet). However, Roland is now suffering as a result of the reality-paradox he created when he rescued the young boy Jake, his mind and sanity is beginning to collapse. Meanwhile Jake's mind is also deteriorating in New york.  In order to save Roland and Jake from insanity, the group pulls Jake away from our world to Mid-world. But no sooner has he become part of the Ka-tet when they find themselves a disintegrating city, with an psychotic mono train and a ominous figure seemingly tracking them...





The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and Glass (1997)



Once again the story begins just where the last book left off.  Roland and the rest of the group escape from one world and slipping into a different plane. And it is there that Roland recounts to his friends a story, one that details his discovery of something even more elusive than the Dark Tower: love.  It is majestic and expansive, a story worthy of any folk-tale which pulsates with an almost suppressing ambiance, and aching with the shattered reminiscence  of a past romance with his only true love.  The book charts Roland's journey to his own tortured past, to a time when some of lives harshest lessons awaited him, lessons of loyalty and betrayal and destiny.






The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla (2003)



Roland Deschain and his collective are are making their way slowly through the forests of Mid-World on their odyssey towards the fabled the Dark Tower. Eventually they find themselves on the outskirts of a town, Calla Bryn Sturgis. At first, all seems peaceful and tranquil in the secluded town. However, beyond in the hills lies the for boding darkness of Thunderclap, the origin of an appalling ailment  that is destroying the soul of the town. The wolves of Thunderclap and their abhorrent ravaging are on their way again. Roland and his Ka-tet are determined to resist them, even if it means putting their quest in peril.






The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah (2004)



This is a story rich in complexity and quite possibly my favourite instalment of the series.
To give birth to her "chap," demon-mother Mia has taken over the body of Susannah Dean and used the energy of Black Thirteen to transport them to the city of New York in the summer of 1999. Now Susannah Dean is possessed, her body an organic repository for the demon. The thing that is growing inside Susannah is something dreadful. Meanwhile, Eddie and Roland find themselves in the US state of Maine in the summer of 1977 - and this world is very real and very violent. It is also inhabited by a certain well known horror writer who turns out to be as stunned by their arrival as they are by his existence.  






The Dark Tower VII: The Dark Tower (2012)



The stunning final volume sees Roland on an ever-changing combination of electrifying rejoicing and sorrowful despair in his unremitting attempt to reach the dark tower. Roland's band of friends are still united, though no longer together. Susannah-Mia has been taken away to New York to give birth while Jake, Father Callahan and Oy try to follow her.
Roland and Eddie are still in Maine, looking for the place which will take them to Susannah. The tower is getting ever nearer,  but every step of the way Roland is followed by a terrible and sinister aberration. The last few miles to the tower may have to be faced alone.






The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012)


Kings return to the series…...There is no synopsis here because the simple fact is that I haven't read it yet - though I know for a fact that Santa may well have bought it me for Christmas in a couple of weeks…….. can't wait!













Saturday, 1 December 2012


HARVEY (1950)




“I have wrestled with reality for 35 years and I am happy to report that I finally won out over it.”
(Elwood P. Dowd)


Oh Elwood P. Dowd, how I loved your philosophy of life when I first saw this wonderful fantasy movie one cold and rainy winters afternoon, stuck in my bed and full of the flu. I was an impressionable teenager when, one rainy afternoon with nothing in particular to do other than find some old movie on television, I stumbled onto this gem of comedy- fantasy movie making. I remember that for some reason (and for the life of me I can't remember why) I had been feeling a little sorry for myself and busy evaluating my life (yes I know, I started young!) All I know is that the film, for what I thought would be a brief moment in time took me away from whatever problems were on my mind at the time. It cheered me, inspired me, made me laugh and had an everlasting impact on me which has lasted to this day.






HARVEY, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Mary Chase, is a classic tale of a middle-aged, amiable (and somewhat eccentric) individual whose best friend is a 6' 3.5" tall rabbit named Harvey, a white rabbit that only Elwood can see. According to Elwood, Harvey is a pooka, a benign but mischievous creature from Celtic mythology who is especially passionate about helping social outcasts. Elwood explains at one point that that Harvey has the power to stop time: 
"Did I tell you he could stop clocks? Well, you've heard the expression 'His face would stop a clock'? Well, Harvey can look at your clock and stop it. And you can go anywhere you like — with anyone you like — and stay as long as you like. And when you get back, not one minute will have ticked by. ... You see, science has overcome time and space. Well, Harvey has overcome not only time and space — but any objections."

This seemingly idiosyncratic insistence on the true existence of his Rabbit friend have driven his sister Veta (played by the magnificent Josephine Hull, who won an Academy Award for her performance) and niece Myrtle Mae ( played by Peggy Dow) to the edge of bewilderment. Elwood's family are terrified that Myrtle Mae will never be accepted into 'polite society' and find a husband with her insane uncle Elwood in plain sight. The family make the decision to have him committed to a nearby mental institution.

Harvey is a comedy, a fantasy. It is also a cunningly clandestine intelligent character study of alcoholism, mental illness and high society - all dressed up in a low-key gentle movie.
James Stewart gives one of his finest performances in a large list of memorable performances, and if memory serves me correctly, this was one of his personal favourites. When revisiting this movie its always a small surprise to be reminded that behind the care-free portrayal there is actually a subtly dark performance from Stewart playing this middle-aged alcoholic who claims to all that he keeps company with a six-foot-tall, invisible rabbit. In fact many of the themes and topics within the film such as the effects of alcoholism and how mental illness was treated (or not, as the case may be) in the 1950's have dark undertones.




Don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying that this is a 'One flew over the cuckoo's nest' in its treatment of how classifying and labelling someone as mentally ill could be potentially problematic. It is however a prime example of how serious and dark issues can be clothed in a gentle and playful manner, whilst still leaving room for thought and contemplation.

Moreover, at no point are the issues that surround Harvey treated in an exploitative way. He is happy with himself and his life and perhaps more significantly, he makes others happy (especially the strangers that he meets) with their lives. That is perhaps the great skill and magic of Elwood and his invisible friend in that they instill a feeling of peace, contentment and joy to almost everyone who comes into contact with them.





The official movie trailer




Is Harvey real? That's the question that I constantly read when I see accounts of this film.  It could be argued that this question is immaterial as we already know that Elwood thinks he is real and as a consequence of that we are conscious that Elwood's family thinks Elwood is insane and bringing shame on the good name of the family. I would suggest that it isn't actually important whether Harvey is real or not, because to Elwood he is real and it is possibly that belief in Harvey and what Harvey represents to him that bestows this middle-aged man with grace, humility and charm. 
Maybe we all need a Harvey, so that we too can reject of the harshness and selfishness of the world that we live in. maybe we already have one and its a case of finding again the childhood carefree nature that many of us leave behind over the years……. However, the clues at the end of the film leave us in little doubt of the true reality of the  existence of the  6' 3.5" tall rabbit.

Harvey is a charming, magical masterpiece that cleverly balances elements of fantasy, comedy, and human without falling into the trap of ever becoming sugary or maudlin.



So is Harvey real? Of course he is.





The complete cinematic edition of the movie.




I think that it's only fitting that I leave the last words to Elwood - words that perfectly embody his character and philosophy of life…..

"Harvey and I sit in the bars... have a drink or two... play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they're saying, "We don't know your name, mister, but you're a very nice fella." Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We've entered as strangers - soon we have friends. And they come over... and they sit with us... and they drink with us... and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they've done and the big wonderful things they'll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey... and he's bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that's envy, my dear. There's a little bit of envy in the best of us".